On Being the Youngest

I have come to see a special ability that becomes available to many who grow up being the youngest of several siblings. It’s the capacity for observation, which is cultivated as a result of their being relegated to the category of “less competent.” Although often regarded fondly,this same affection can attribute the ignorance of innocence to the youngest sibling.

We don’t choose the family we’re born into or our place in the birth order. But we can learn from reflecting on it.

We don’t choose the family we’re born into or our place in the birth order. But we can learn from reflecting on it.

What is she to do? Marginalized and not taken seriously as a participant in dinner-table talk, she can observe. In the early years, she may regard the judgments of others that she has no qualifications to participate as legitimate. But if this is accompanied by curiosity and a civil and stimulating environment, at the table, she may learn patience and special skills of observation and listening.

Furthermore, under these circumstances she may come to reflect upon what she sees and hears, and to notice the tendencies of others. Although a downside of being youngest could be acquiring a sense that one is not competent, capable, or worthy, there can be upsides. These accrue to the youngest in families whose members love and respect one another, emotionally safe environments.

I know, you may be thinking “How could you say they love and respect one another if they treat the youngest in ways that cause her to feel less capable?” My short answer: Any child, regardless of where they stand in the birth order, will be short-changed in some way. Family dynamics are imperfect as are parents. And asymmetries of power always exist, no matter how subtle. We all leave childhood with work to do.

However, in a generally healthy family (loving, caring, mutually respectful), each member will in time mature and claim their right to speak and be heard. It’s the unique advantage of the youngest, however, that they’ve often acquired the capacity to observe, patience to listen, and the knowledge that some talk without thinking and become found out. With maturity, this may bolster their prudential wisdom.

So, there are certain inheritances from our childhood that may seem purely negative. We may regret them, see them only as disadvantages. But if we simply accept them as a part of our life experience and seek to understand how they’ve caused us to learn different lessons, we may discover that there is value to be found in what may have otherwise been seen as a limitation or barrier to growth.

Who were you in your family of origin? How were your included, engaged, or involved? What parts of that experience have felt like barriers? How might your experience positioned you to learn something different from your siblings? Make this life experience open and available for your inspection. Know that now you are free to consciously use this experience for your further self-understanding and growth.

And if there is trauma is in your past, a family system that was unhealthy and dysfunctional, know that you can still also learn and grow from processing this experience. There may be pain and needs for expert help in that case. But the help, if provided well, will provide you with the emotional safety you didn’t have earlier in life, and that will enable you too to learn and grow, and also to let go.



Procrastination and Self-Forgiveness

If you’re feeling stuck in procrastination, there is reason for hope!

The growing burden of things that remain undone, perhaps not even started, can weigh us down. We all fall behind from time to time. It never feels good, but when it’s occasional, caught early enough, and corrected, we can more easily attribute it to circumstances beyond our control. However, when it persists and produces feelings of dread and a pattern of avoidance, it can shake our confidence, leaving us feeling destined to fail.

When procrastination manifests in this way, it can feel like a character flaw, that something fundamental and internal to our being is at issue. But recent research suggests a different root cause and avenues of action that can set us free. I shall summarize some of this research and suggest a few simple ways in which you can begin taking corrective action to remedy vulnerabilities to procrastination.

When you’re in its grip, procrastination and getting caught up can look impossible. It’s not!

When you’re in its grip, procrastination and getting caught up can look impossible. It’s not!

Procrastination

Historically, we can trace use of the word procrastination to the 16th century. According to Merriam-Webster it’s composed of the prefix pro-, meaning "forward," and crastinus, meaning "of tomorrow. But others have found much earlier references to this vulnerability in Hesiod (700 BC), when he admonishes his brother Perses to stop avoiding his duties:

Do not put your work off till to-morrow and the day after; for a sluggish worker does not fill his barn, nor one who puts off his work: industry makes work go well, but a man who puts off work is always at hand-grips with ruin.

Notice how pejorative, even morally loaded, the meaning of procrastination is in the Merriam-Webster definition below. The allusions to laziness in this definition and to ruin in Hesiod indicate just how deeply rooted this negative connotation is. No wonder, then, that those wrestling with issues of procrastination can easily see it as something endemic, characterological, and resistant to change.

Procrastinate - to put off intentionally the doing of something that should be done; to move or act slowly so as to fall behind. It typically implies blameworthy delay especially through laziness or apathy.

But we know better based on learning theory and clinical research. We know that procrastinators “tend to prioritize mood regulation over long-term goal pursuits…[they] avoid working on actual unpleasant tasks to feel better in the present moment.” They’re feeling down and overwhelmed. And experimental research has shown that self-forgiveness (see below) helps us improve our mood and procrastinate less.

Self-Forgiveness

What is self-forgiveness? It’s a restorative process in which we, the procrastinator: 1) accept responsibility for our actions; 2) express remorse while reducing shame; 3) commit to changing our behaviors and affirming related values; and 4) achieve renewed self-respect, self-acceptance and moral growth. Notice that self-forgiveness is not about excusing one’s actions or avoiding responsibility.

The aim here is to forgive oneself for previous procrastinating behavior in order to get to higher ground, to a state of self-acceptance that acknowledges that we did not act properly or effectively, and that it is time for change. We thereby see our procrastination as a correctable problem. Nevertheless, our mistakes may have caused others to lose trust and confidence in us, even lose respect for us.

But that can change when we accept responsibility, express remorse, initiate change in behavior, and learn and grow from our failures. We rebuild trust and confidence in others as we act on changes in behavior. The restorative process addresses internal and external dimensions of development. To quote research psychologist, Carrol Izard, “The individual learns to act his way into a new way of feeling.

Notes

I have drawn upon several sources for this article:

Self-Forgiveness, Self-Acceptance or Intrapersonal Restoration? Open Issues in the Psychology of Forgiveness. By Maria Prieta-Ursua & Ignacio Echegoyen. In Papeles del Psicologo, 2015, Vol. 36 (3).

Why Wait? The Science Behind Procrastination. Eric Jaffe. In Association for Psychological Science, April 2013.

Procrastination and Stress: Exploring The Role of Self-Compassion. Fuschia Sirois. In Self and Identity, March 2014.

Cardinal Themes: Assertiveness and Honesty

As a clinical and consulting psychologist, I work with a variety of “presenting problems.” And most of them are ameliorated greatly by further development of two capabilities, assertiveness and honesty. If that sounds simplistic, be assured that each of these capabilities is multifaceted and the work of shaping them to achieve authentic expression in an individual person is anything but simple. Indeed, it’s messy, but more on that soon. First, let’s define these cardinal capabilities.

Assertiveness is not aggressiveness. Honesty is not mere truth-telling. So, what’s honest assertiveness?

Assertiveness is not aggressiveness. Honesty is not mere truth-telling. So, what’s honest assertiveness?

Assertiveness

Assertiveness, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is “characterized by bold or confident statements and behavior.” Okay, but this definition does little to distinguish it from aggressiveness, and making that distinction is fundamental to appreciating the cardinal importance of assertiveness as an essential feature of social-emotional maturity. I prefer to define assertiveness as speaking with transparency, as expressing with clarity and accuracy what we are experiencing to others, which we wish to have them hear and understand.

The Dictionary definition emphasizes directness, which could be interpreted to include “telling it like it is” or “giving them what for.” But those messages are different from assertiveness as a transparency. They convey bluntness, take on a scolding tone that makes an issue of others behavior rather than expressing one’s own experience. Even when our assertive message includes mention of what we would like to see change, i.e., “I would like feel more confident that my intentions and actions are properly understood before they are evaluated,” it does not make others the issue.

Here’s the rationale: We cannot reasonably expect to be understood by others if we are not communicating clearly and accurately to them what we are thinking, feeling, perceiving, and intending. To do this we do not need to speak boldly, nor must our display of confidence convey readiness for battle. The tonal qualities of your assertiveness versus mine may vary due to our personalities. Your’s might carry a bit more declarative force than mine, while mine is more softly spoken. But for both of us our primary aim is to communicate in a way that ensures understanding.

An aggressive tone may be appropriate after repeated efforts at being assertive do not produce the change we’re seeking: “Come on now, John, we’ve having this same conversation for two months; it’s time to resolve this issues!” If such an assertion is made after several non-aggressive attempts to reach a resolution, it conveys and understandable impatience that’s more likely to seem warranted. It calls out a pattern of interaction that’s not been working. And it invites parties to acknowledge this failure in communication so that they can address the problem more directly, and more honestly.

Honesty

Referring again to Merriam-Webster, honesty is defined as “free from fraud or deception, legitimate and truthful, also as forthright and sincere expression.” And it is these qualities, especially truthfulness and sincerity, that I think of when I characterize assertiveness as transparency. But there is more to it. Honesty is also described by the Dictionary to include characteristics such as “direct and uncomplicated,” which are used to convey “simple, innocent, and sincere” motivations. There is an overriding intention to speak frankly, from the heart.

It is true that 2 + 2 = 4. But honesty expresses something beyond a veracity of logic. There are certain truths that may be difficult for us to accept about ourselves or a situation. The difficulty registers in emotions such as fear, anger, embarrassment, or uncertainty. And when these emotional aspects of our honesty-related experience are expressed, we recognize the air of sincerity and struggle involved. Working through difficult truths in all their complexity, and discovering what makes them difficult for us individually and as friends, family, and coworkers, that is a process that deepens trust.

There can be dishonesty of omission and of commission. Sincerity allows no space for either. It implies that our honesty is heartfelt and complete. And if we struggle for the words to express it, and if we come by the whole truth and full honesty only through lengthy dialogue, it is the consistency and earnestness of the intent that allows us to keep faith. We can sense that neither we nor others are trying to spin or conceal the simple truth. Masks and defenses fall away. This honesty is the natural partner of assertiveness.

If assertiveness contains an element of boldness - the strength of truth-telling - then it is a different virtue that distinguishes honesty as defined here. It’s a softer virtue, it’s the patience of truth-seeking and the compassion for those who take risks and reveal vulnerabilities in the process. One might make the case for assertiveness and honesty on prudential grounds - it makes good sense, fulfills our fiduciary duties. That’s fine, but I think these virtues are ultimately grounded in moral considerations, i.e., what is good, right, and proper as it applies to our conduct and our ends.

Joining the Virtues

An assertiveness that is factually grounded and rationally articulated can help get us to the heart of practical issues more quickly. Even when deployed with a restrained expression of emotion, it may produce more transparency and promote effective collaboration. It’s when relational dynamics become a more central part of our considerations - a depth of trust, a belief that we have one another’s back, that we are all in it together - that’s when the more emotionally vulnerable and morally grounded qualities of honesty must rally to the aid of assertiveness.

As I often tell clients about many of the topics I get involved with, these matters are just as important at home as they are at work. And we have more low-risk opportunities to cultivate honest assertiveness practices outside of work. So, seek out some risk-taking in assertiveness and honesty, and practice honest assertiveness in these safe places. Feel the discomfort that arises when we move outside the comfort of safe habits. Welcome this as an indication of productive risk-taking from which much can be learned.

Personal Impacts of Sociopolitical Chaos

What happens in the world affects the way we feel.

I’ve seen a significant uptick in clients reporting emotional distress and existential anxiety in response to growing fears that global warming, domestic terrorism, and ruptures in our post-WWII alliances signal an emerging sociopolitical instability. These are not issues that I’m looking for. They’re offered freely when I inquire about what causes them to seek help at this time.

Despair and alienation can induce anxiety and depression, leaving us feeling hopeless.

Despair and alienation can induce anxiety and depression, leaving us feeling hopeless.

My practice as a psychologist serves professional people, well-educated and ambitious. As individuals and couples, they often impose a great deal of pressure on themselves. They aim high, work hard, and can be intensely self-critical when they fall short. Neurotic? Yes, their mental and motivational orientation does generate anxiety, perfectionism, and overwork that can sap the joy from their lives. 

Even among those who are hardy and resilient, mounting stress, strain, and fatigue spawns an intensity of mental focus, feelings of urgency, and decompensation in coping resources. Trying harder may work for a while, but it’s hardly ever sustainable. After they’ve depleted their personal resources and perhaps driven intimate others and colleagues “nuts,” they enter my office seeking help.

Loss and the Role of Social Support

These more socially embedded issues can seem beyond our reach. It’s this frustration that people mean to express when they compare the macro level of change to dealing with “world hunger.” If this is not to be a dismissive reference, however, it must evoke a shift in perspective that inquires after what we can do, what is within our reach, no matter how incremental or symbolic.  

We’ve begun seeing evidence that corporate America is recognizing this widespread anxiety and the need to do something to acknowledge it and give society hope. They’ve taken action on issues of gun violence and global warming. When these public positions are asserted as acts of social responsibility, they give us reason for hope. After all, we live in market-based economies that usually resist government action. 

There may be other actions and affiliations we as individuals can pursue to reinforce these efforts in our own communities. When Adam Smith made his comments about how self-interest motivates productive economic behavior, he also recognized that ethics and responsibility for common interests are sparked by non-economic motives, i.e., by moral “sentiments” or emotions such as sympathy.  

That’s part of the reason we see people seeking solidarity around value-based concerns for the public good, e.g., Mothers Against Drunk Driving and Doctors Without Borders. People from diverse religious and political affiliations find common cause in pursuing such common interests. Not only is there practical value in such action, it provides us with a sense of potency. 

Anxiety and depression share a common feature. It’s the loss of our internal locus of control. Feelings of hopelessness and helplessness grow when see no options to act on what are inherently practical matters with harmful effects. As persons we feel less free, our social lives feel less democratic. But seeing that our companies can do something, perhaps we can be heartened to do something too.  

Making Our Lives Better

As couples, as families, as work groups or social action groups, we always remain free to take action. And even before taking action, we have the opportunity (and responsibility) to talk about what we’re feeling and experiencing. It’s important to gain insight into what’s really at the root of our concerns. If all we come up with is anger or resentment, we’re not done getting to the core of our concerns. 

Taking social action out of anger usually implies acting out of ignorance, even willful ignorance. It is acting out of positive motivations, life-affirming, adaptive modes of social responsibility that restores our internal locus of control and helps assuage feelings of anxiety and depression. These are ways of making our lives better. Done properly, we’ll feel more hope, less alienation. So find a way to act!

Telling Lies and Telling Stories:

 It’s an important difference!

I won’t have trouble gaining consensus on the virtue of telling the truth. As kids and teens, many of us told some lies to avoid getting into trouble, or even some tall tales to impress friends. But most of us outgrew that behavior as we developed a conscience, a sense of responsibility, and appreciation for the role of truthfulness and trust in relationships.  

The question is how we help one another be the best we can be.

The question is how we help one another be the best we can be.

However, there are some people who continue to tell lies as adults. Many of us may tell the occasional “white lie,” something innocent or benign when a child is not ready for the “raw” truth or when we are seeking to avoid needlessly hurting someone’s feelings. But that’s not the type of lying that tarnishes the integrity and veracity we associate with good moral character.  

It’s when others seek to deceive us that we begin to question their character. Even then, there are differences in motivation that distinguish malicious lying from what I’d like to call “telling stories.” The malicious lying intends to deceive, manipulate, or otherwise take advantage of others. It’s deliberate and willful. Telling stories is different. It is motivated by insecurities and needs for approval. 

Intentions and Consequences

We can agree that malicious lying is bad. As described, it is by definition self-serving and intended to exploit others. Telling stories, on the other hand, is a practice that can arise out of fears that one is not good enough or that telling the truth might entail consequences one can’t handle. The major difference, then, is that if the feared consequences are mitigated, the story teller may be able tell the truth. 

I believe this difference is important. And it goes to a distinction between being moral and being moralistic. Being moral in our attitude and orientation toward truth-telling and lying implies evaluating what is good, right, and proper. Being moralistic implies a readiness to find fault and judge others too quickly and without considering mitigating factors that affect their motivations and behavior. 

An Example: The Gambler

A man secretly sought to multiply his savings, which were to go toward a down payment on a home for him and his fiancé, by gambling. But he lost and kept losing until his savings were depleted. By the time they had agreed they would begin actively shopping for and purchasing a home, he was forced to tell the truth, which he had withheld from her for almost a year. It threw the couple into a tail spin. 

While working with the couple, it became clear that she was troubled mostly by the fact that he was capable of deceiving her and lying about how the savings were growing. She too had been saving her share. And she said at one point, “He seemed so good at it [i.e., the lying]. It seemed so easy for him to do it. How can I ever trust him again?” That’s what it looked like to her. 

What we soon learned, however, is that inside he was feeling terribly guilty, intensely anxious, afraid that if she found out she would leave him. He could not see a way to discuss his mistakes with her. It was something that simply did not seem discussable to him. He was ashamed, afraid, and felt incompetent to talk this issue through with her.  

Eliminating the Need for Stories

For this couple, discovering what made telling stories feel necessary for him, helped her see his actions and motivations differently. He’d always been less able and ready to express his feelings and examine emotionally charged issues more deeply as compared to her. Instead, he would appear more stone-faced and express readiness to concede an issue in order halt further discussion. 

In the presence of a third party, however, their individual differences in personality, life experience, and openness to engaging in difficult conversations became more discussable. Based on understanding these differences and how they affect their communications, they were able to learn how to navigate these kinds of conversations more effectively.  

They came to see that their most important operating principle was a commitment to creating the conditions that promote truth-telling. By focusing on these conditions, they found that it also made it easier for them to raise issues sooner, to deal with issues on a timelier basis, knowing that it would never be quite as difficult to work through them as it might initially seem.